von John Burton
When at least 10,000 ethnic Indians gathered late last year in Kuala Lumpur to demonstrate against alleged racial discrimination, it triggered political tremors in multi-ethnic Malaysia.
Not only did the protest defy a state edict against unauthorised outdoor assemblies, it also broke a taboo against publicly questioning the country's long-standing policy of preferential treatment for majority Muslim Malays.
Malaysia's government was clearly rattled.
Abdullah Badawi, the prime minister, invoked the colonial-era internal security act for the first time since coming to power in 2003, detaining without trial five leaders of the Indian protest.
Underlying Racial Tensions
The protest revealed underlying racial tensions in what has been seen as one of the world's most successful multi-ethnic states and one of its more open economies. Malaysia is among south-east Asia's richest countries, regarded as a model for other Muslim countries in embracing globalisation.
Many observers were surprised that the protest was mounted by ethnic Indians, Malaysia's smallest and most quiescent racial minority, who have been the strongest supporters of the National Front coalition government since it came to power in 1957.
But dissent has grown among Indians recently with the destruction of Hindu temples that officials said were built illegally and court cases that ruled that Muslim-born Indians could not convert to the Hindu faith.
Malaysia suffered race riots in 1969 when ethnic Malays clashed with Chinese, who have come to dominate the economy since they started immigrating in the 19th century. Since then, however, peace has reigned among the Malays (52 per cent of the population), ethnic Chinese (25 per cent), Indians (8 per cent) and indigenous people (10 per cent).
But there are signs of growing resentment among the country's minorities to Malay political dominance and what they see as "creeping Islamisation". "There used to be more mixing among the races but increased urbanisation has brought more competition for jobs and ethnic identities have become more important as a result," says Jawhar Hassan, head of the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur.
Preferential Treatment for Malays
The policy of preferential treatment for Malays, known as the new economic policy, has contributed to this trend. Established in the wake of the 1969 riots, the programme was meant to narrow the income gap between wealthy Chinese and poor Malays and indigenous people, known as bumiputra or "sons of the soil", by giving the latter preference for university places and state jobs.
Businesses were required to have a bumiputra partner, who would hold at least a 30 per cent equity stake.
The policy succeeded in eradicating poverty among Malays but has been blamed for leading to an informal apartheid.
The adoption of the Malay language rather than English as the language of instruction in state schools in the 1970s led Chinese and Indian families to enrol their children in private schools to preserve their native language.
The overwhelming majority of students in state primary schools now are Malays.
The belief among ethnic Chinese and Indians that they are being denied opportunities has led many to emigrate, while others who do not have enough funds to start a new life abroad express frustration with the system.
"I was born and raised in Malaysia and I consider myself as much a bumiputra as a Malay. But I'm treated like a second-class citizen," says Anand, an ethnic Indian taxi driver.
Recent Court Cases on Religious Issues
Several recent court cases involving the conversion of Muslims to other religions have exacerbated divisions. The civil courts have ruled that Islamic sharia courts, which oppose apostasy, are the sole authority on the issue since Muslims fall under their jurisdiction.
The decision has raised doubts about Malaysia's commitment to freedom of religion and led to the formation last year of the Hindu activist group that organised the recent Indian protest.
Economists warn that the NEP represents a barrier to improving Malaysia's economic efficiency when the country is facing increased competition for foreign investment from regional rivals such as Vietnam.
Mr Abdullah has sought to ease some affirmative action provisions in response to those concerns. But when he announced last year that the government would waive such rules for a new economic zone near Singapore, he was criticised by hardliners in his own United Malays National Organisation, Malaysia's dominant party.
The prime minister faces a tough challenge. He must appease Malay nationalists to keep his post, since his power base within Umno is weak. But his refusal to make concessions to minorities is likely to cause Chinese and Indian voters to defect to the opposition at the next general election, which could come early this year.
The government is expected to win the election easily, since it holds more than 90 per cent of the parliamentary seats. But a declining share of the vote for the National Front could undermine Mr Abdullah's authority and derail his economic reforms.
An erosion in support for the Malaysian Chinese Association and the Malaysian Indian Congress, the two main parties in the National Front that represent the ethnic minorities, would further increase the influence of Umno on state policy.
Mr Abdullah already appears to be bowing to pressure from Umno conservatives, in spite of promising political liberalisation after the autocratic rule of his predecessor, Mahathir Mohamad.
"The protest reflects the new openness that Abdullah sought to achieve by encouraging the expression of grievances. But he may have decided to use the ISA to calm down the power brokers within Umno, who don't like to see their authority challenged," says Ramon Navaratnam, head of the Malaysian branch of Transparency International.
A close aide to the prime minister painted a more alarming picture, saying that the recent Indian protest could create a backlash among Malays and lead to racial violence. "Abdullah appears to be genuinely worried about the situation," says a foreign diplomat in Kuala Lumpur.
U-Turn in Economic Reforms
There are other signs of a U-turn in Mr Abdullah's reform agenda. He recently scrapped plans to sell Proton, the troubled state-owned carmaker, to Volkswagen or General Motors, caving in to pressure from Malay subcontractors who feared a loss of business.
Any significant retreat from the NEP is unlikely as long as the National Front remains in power. "In spite of the complaints about the NEP, the fact is that the policy has ensured this country's stability and its abandonment would destroy it," says Mr Jawhar.
"The NEP was originally meant to eradicate poverty among all races, not just the Malays," says Mr Navaratnam. "But it has since evolved into a policy promoting the interests of Malays. If it can regain its original intention, the NEP can still play an useful role."
Read here on International Herald Tribune
Ethnic anger on the rise in Malaysia
The customers of Malaysian Indian Casket, a small shop on the outskirts of this modern and cosmopolitan city, come in all different sizes: standard coffins clutter the entrance, child-size boxes are stacked high on the shelves and extra-large models, those for the tallest of the deceased, are stored in the back.
But there is no variety in the ethnic background of the clientele.
"All the customers are Indian," said Aru Maniam, a shop salesman.
Malaysians Divided by Ethnicity
In death as in life, Malaysians are divided by ethnicity. The country's main ethnic groups - Malays, Chinese and Indians - have their own political parties, schools, newspapers and, in the case of Malays, a separate Islamic legal system.
For years this segregation was promoted as the best formula for social harmony in a country that advertises itself as "Truly Asia," a place where the palette of skin colors is as diverse as the mosques, churches and Hindu and Buddhist temples that dot the landscape.
Deteriorating Ethnic Relations
But in recent months ethnic relations here have deteriorated to a level that many find alarming. After years of muffled tensions over religious conversions, government funding for minority schools and a longstanding system of special privileges for Malays, the dominant group, ethnic anger has burst to the forefront of Malaysian politics.
Protest by Ethnic Indians
In November, Indians, who make up less than 10 percent of the population of about 25 million and are disproportionately poor, led a protest march through Kuala Lumpur, the first large-scale ethnically motivated street demonstration in almost four decades.
They announced a largely symbolic $4 trillion class-action lawsuit against the British government, the colonial rulers, for bringing them as indentured laborers to the region, "exploiting them for 150 years" and allowing them to be marginalized.
The police broke up the demonstration with water cannon and tear gas and arrested five representatives of a group called the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, which led the protests. The five men are being held indefinitely and without trial under an internal security law.
"This is a country that is in search of soul, in search of a common mission," said Charles Santiago, coordinator of the Group of Concerned Citizens, an organization that seeks solutions to ethnic strife in the country. Malaysians, he said, are feeling more threatened by common problems such as crime and cost-of-living increases, but at the same time are increasingly divided by ethnicity.
The past six months have seen an unusual number of street demonstrations in Malaysia, a country where the police for decades have systematically denied permits for demonstrations in an effort to keep political quarrels off the streets.
Frustrations with the Government
Frustration has grown with the government of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, who promised to sweep away corruption and make government more accountable when he came to power five years ago.
In September, the country's Bar Council marshaled thousands of lawyers for a demonstration demanding judicial independence after a video clip surfaced of a top lawyer apparently negotiating judicial appointments.
In November, a coalition of activist groups organized a demonstration of at least 10,000 people calling for clean and fair elections.
Last Saturday, opposition groups demonstrated against rising prices of food and fuel, the second such protest in six months.
The Indians' anger appears to have rattled the government the most. Abdullah sought to woo back Indians by declaring the Hindu festival of Thaipusam, which was celebrated Jan. 23, a federal holiday. A court decision in a highly emotional dispute over whether an Indian man should be buried according to Hindu or Muslim rites has been postponed indefinitely.
Analysts say race relations could become more tense as the country prepares for elections, which are widely expected to be called for March.
"It will be a racialized campaign, there's no question," said Bridget Welsh, a specialist in Malaysian politics at Johns Hopkins University-SAIS in Washington.
Government Losing Support of Non-Malays
An opinion poll made public last Friday by the Merdeka Center (www.merdeka.org) showed support for the government among non-Malays plummeting. Only 38 percent of Indians and 42 percent of Chinese said they strongly or somewhat approved of Abdullah's job performance, by far the lowest rating for the prime minister. When he came to power, he had an overall approval rating of 91 percent.
His overall approval rating in the new poll was 61 percent, a poor showing for Malaysia, where the opposition is weak. Almost two-thirds of respondents said they were dissatisfied with the way the government was handling issues of ethnicity and inequality.
The survey, conducted by phone in December among 1,026 randomly selected registered voters, had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
"Indian support for the government is the worst it's ever been in the country's history," Welsh said. "It's profound. Indians have traditionally supported the government the highest."
With Chinese voters also angry at the government - mainly over its handling of the economy - Welsh says the government risks losing control of the state of Penang, where ethnic Chinese form a plurality, as well as a handful of parliamentary seats scattered across the country.
There is little risk that the coalition of Malay, Chinese and Indian parties known as the National Front, which has governed the country since independence from Britain in 1957, will lose its majority.
Even though the coalition won only 64 percent of the popular vote in 2004, it controls more than 90 percent of the seats in Parliament, partly because after five decades in power the government has gerrymandered constituencies to its advantage.
But analysts fear that ethnic frictions could increase as Chinese and Indian representation in the government weakens.
Policy Favoring the Malays
Underpinning the anger of the Chinese and Indians is an affirmative action program in place for 37 years that favors Malays and other smaller indigenous ethnic groups collectively known as bumiputra, literally "sons of the soil."
Bumiputra make up 60 percent of the population but have 87 percent of government jobs. They receive discounts of 5 to 10 percent on new homes and have a reserved quota of 30 percent of any newly listed company on the stock market. Newspapers are filled with notices of government construction contracts exclusively reserved for companies controlled by bumiputra.
"It's completely unacceptable that you cannot get awarded a contract just because of the color of your skin," said Lim Guan Eng, the secretary general of the Democratic Action Party, the leading opposition party in Parliament. "That grates tremendously. We are treated as though we are third- or fourth-class citizens."
The bulk of the Chinese and Indians came or were brought to the Malay Peninsula while it was still a British colony to work in tin mines or on rubber plantations, although some Chinese, known as Peranakan, came as long as five centuries ago.
Yet Malaysia's ethnic classification is complicated by the fact that race is often an imprecise concept in Southeast Asia. Malays are a vaguely defined group that trace their ancestry to the Indonesian islands of Java, Sulawesi, Sumatra or as far as Arabia and India.
Lim points out that the father of Mohamed Khir Toyo, the chief minister of Selangor State, came from Indonesia. Yet his son is considered a bumiputra, while an ethnic Chinese person whose family has lived in Malaysia for centuries would still not qualify as indigenous.
Ethnic Indians - The Biggest Losers
The biggest losers in the current system are Indians, who, according to government statistics, make up 9 percent of the labor force but hold 16 percent of menial jobs and control just 1.2 percent of equity in registered companies in the country.
Indians are not aided by the affirmative action program, because it is based on ethnicity, not need.
More than economic issues, said Santiago of the Group of Concerned Citizens, Indians were infuriated by the highly publicized case of a Malaysian soldier, Maniam Moorthy, who died in 2005 and whose body was claimed by the Islamic authorities for Muslim burial.
The authorities claimed that Moorthy, who was born a Hindu, converted to Islam months before his death. Moorthy's wife, Kaliammal Sinnasamy, sued in a civil court to obtain the body, but the court ruled that it had no jurisdiction because the matter had already been decided in an Islamic court. A ruling on Kaliammal's appeal has been postponed indefinitely.
The case, one of at least a dozen similar ethno-religious disputes reported recently in Malaysian newspapers, became a cause célèbre among Indians.
"You can push us, you can cheat us, you can discriminate against us, but you can't tell us that we're not Hindus after we are dead," Santiago said.
11 books on Islam banned (read here related article)
Malaysia has banned 11 books for allegedly giving a false portrayal of Islam, such as by linking the religion to terrorism and the mistreatment of women, an official said Wednesday, The Associated Press reported from Kuala Lumpur.
The government ordered the books - most of them released by American publishers - to be blacklisted this month "because they are not in line with what we call the Malaysian version of Islam," said Che Din Yusoh, an official with the Internal Security Ministry's publications control unit.
"Some of them ridicule Islam as a religion or the facts are wrong about Islam, like associating Islam with terrorism or saying Islam mistreats women," he said.
The banned books include eight English-language ones, such as "The Two Faces of Islam: Saudi Fundamentalism and its Role in Terrorism," "Secrets of the Quran: Revealing Insights Into Islam's Holy Book" and "Women in Islam." There are also three books written in the local Malay language.
LOS ANGELES, USA
Local Malaysian Indians planning rally
Todd R. Brown
FREMONT (USA) — While countries such as Israel and Pakistan are infamous for imposing strict emergency security rules on civilians, the plight of ethnic Indians in Malaysia is LESS well-known.
The tropical nation along the South China Sea officially is Islamic, and Hindu residents there complain of second-class treatment by the government.
Recently, Malaysian police detained several Hindu Rights Action Force leaders under a nearly 50-year-old law that allows people to be held for years without charge.
On Saturday, local Malaysian Indians plan to gather in Fremont to make banners for a rally Feb. 16 at the Consulate General of Malaysia, Los Angeles, to call for an end to discrimination they say their people routinely suffer under Muslim dominion.
"It's a form of apartheid," said Malini Kumar, 36, of Fremont, originally from the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur. "They've marginalized Malaysian Indians. They've altered the constitution in such a way that it's biased against them."
Kumar is part of a Yahoo discussion group, called Bay Area Malaysian Indians, that has about 40 member e-mails so far. The banner-making will be at 1 p.m. at her home, 2503 Parkside Drive.
She said people from the Internet group will trek to the consulate to present red roses signifying peaceful struggle and yellow roses signifying a demand for justice.
"When the British gave us independence, it was supposed to be equal for everybody," she said of Malaysia's 50-year-old autonomy. "We have no political and financial power. We've become the poorest ethnic group in Malaysia."
Indians there make up 8 percent of the population, compared with ethnic Chinese at 25 percent and Malays — born Muslim under the law — at 60 percent.
Malaysia also uses a two-court system, a civil court for non-Muslims and a Sharia system that follows the Quran.
Ishani Chowdhury of the Hindu American Foundation said cases in Sharia court pitting Muslims against non-Muslims typically go against the minority groups.
In one case, she said a Hindu mother who got a divorce could lose her son because her husband converted to Islam, then forced the child to convert. A Sharia court would not grant custody of a Muslim child to a non-Muslim parent.
In another case, she said a woman born to Muslim parents but raised as a Hindu by her grandmother was forced into an "Islamic rehabilitation center" to try to prod her to renounce her faith.
Ratha Maniam, 54, of Redwood City said she plans to attend the banner-making and the rally "to support my fellows back home." The native of Perak in northwest Indonesia said her Hindu brother registered his transportation company under a Muslim owner's name because of ethnic bias.
"We cannot own a business," she said. "(My brother) pays per truck like $500 a month just to use his name."
She and Kumar said a university quota system also favors Malays at the expense of Hindus, who must have far superior test scores to get into higher education.
"I have good friends who are Malay. You feel it's a little bit unfair. The government says they're doing this because they want to bring the Malay race on par with the Chinese," said Kumar, noting that rubber plantation and tin mine owners in the 1800s brought in Chinese and Indian laborers, whose descendants succeeded in business.
Kumar said although their number is small, Malaysian Indians here need to make a statement about their historic struggle.
"We don't expect the government to change overnight," she said. "We just want to voice out our frustration. We are Malaysian citizens, but just because of our race, you're treated so differently."
Bay Area Malaysian Indians, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/bayarea_malaysian_indians/
Ethnic Indian's anger hits Malaysian basis of racial stability
Kuala Lumpur (AP): Malaysians typically sit and gripe about the government while sipping tea in safe sidewalk cafes.
Few want to protest in public and face possible arrest.
That could be changing.
About 20,000 minority ethnic Indians clashed on the streets with the Kuala Lumpur police for seven hours in November last to demand equal rights and a fairer share of national resources.
They dispersed amid clouds of tear gas and water cannons. Some 250 people were briefly detained and five protest organisers are in jail under a law that allows indefinite detention without charges or trial.
"It was a watershed event," said S Nagarajan of the Education, Welfare and Research Foundation, a non-profit group that represents impoverished ethnic Indians. "It showed that Malaysians have overcome the fear of authorities. Even we were surprised by the scale and the spirit of the people."
Emboldened by the impact of the November 25 demonstration, ethnic Indians have become increasingly vocal with claims that they are marginalised in this multi-racial country.
They claim that the Malaysian Indian Congress, the third largest party in the ruling National Front coalition, has become corrupt and has not done enough to improve the situation for Indians.
According to Nagarajan, Indians make up 5 per cent of the civil service now compared to 21.5 per cent in 1969. Only about 1.2 per cent of corporate equity has been in the hands of Indians for the past three decades.
"The anger has been building up," said Nagarajan. "The state has been arrogant and a bully, not realising that even the marginalised can react."
Global rights group calls for abolition of strict Malaysian security law
KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- An international human rights organization Thursday called on Malaysia to abolish its strict security law and said five ethnic Indian activists detained for holding a mass rally stand no chance of getting a fair hearing.
The activists from the Hindu Rights Action Force, or Hindraf, were detained in December under the Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, shortly after they led some 20,000 Indians to protest alleged unfair treatment in ethnic Malay-dominated Malaysia.
A hearing into an appeal by defense lawyers to have the detention declared illegal finished on Monday. The verdict will be issued on Feb. 26.
Laurie Berg, an Australian lawyer speaking on behalf of the International Federation for Human Rights, said Thursday the hearing was not fair because the detainees were not present and could not challenge the accusations.
"We find that they have no chance of a fair hearing under this law ... The Internal Security Act is the very definition of arbitrary detention ... It's a violation of their fundamental human rights," she told reporters. "The use of this law is never justified."
Berg called on Malaysia to abolish "this outdated law" and free the five activists and about 70 others detained under the decades-old legislation.
Officials were not available for comment Thursday.
Attorney General Abdul Gani Patail has said the imprisonment of the five Indian activists ordered by Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi was lawful and necessary for security reasons.
Hindraf shot to prominence through its Nov. 25 rally to protest against alleged discrimination in employment, business and education opportunities and the destruction of some Hindu temples.
Ethnic Indians, most of them Hindus, make up only 8 percent of Malaysia's 27 million people. Ethnic Chinese, mainly Buddhist and Christians, account for a quarter, while Muslim Malays make up 60 percent.